Nas Is No Pretender to the Throne on 'King's Disease II'
Published Aug 09, 2021Accomplished and respected enough to kick up his feet and puff cigars till the Hall of Fame calls, Nasir Jones has instead slammed the creative gas pedal. Maybe it's because the pandemic has shackled touring artists to their home studios. Maybe it's because the emcee's emcee has stumbled onto a platinum producer (Hit-Boy) with whom he clicks easy as Duplo. Or maybe, like so many of us closer to 50 than 40, he just feels comfortable in his own skin, with his own thoughts.
Regardless the reason, for the first time since his fame-chasing run in the late-'90s when he crossed over to the silver screen (Belly) and recorded like a fiend, Nas has dropped two albums in under 12 months. But unlike I Am… and Nastradamus (both jammed into 1999), there is a level of consistency and focus to 2020's Grammy-winning King's Disease and the spankin'-fresh King's Disease II that speaks of a grown man at peace with making grown-man rap records.
The buzzy, chipped-toothed kid who "went to hell for snuffing Jesus" and monkey-flipped rappers out the ring in '94 is no longer taking the world by storm. Now he's sipping bottomless Bellinis and surveying the landscape from a penthouse view, taking stock of his legacy and his caloric intake. Blunt ashes have been replaced by pinot residue. Yet even on album number 14, the pen game remains tack sharp. So, while KD2's cringiest dad raps — "miles on my Peloton, I've been working on my core" and "chef know how to cook with no salt and low fat" — feel a million miles from Illmatic, Nas is still reporting live from his perch. After three decades of relevant recordings, the kid shaped by those Queensbridge projects can simply afford a better one.
Wearing Hit-Boy's clean, soulful bounce like a cozy robe, Nas has reached a sense of contentment and reflection. This leads to an entire rap joint about enjoying "Brunch on Sundays," sure, but it also gives Nas the clarity to sift through his 2Pac beef and quiet reconciliation with precision (the excellent "Death Row East") and freedom to share the mic with a variety of heavy-hitting personalities, without fear they'll rob his shine. "My whole career I steered away from features / But I figured it's perfect timing to embrace new leaders," Nas reasons. The listeners win.
Don Tolliver and Lil Baby add flourishes to "The Pressure" and "40 Side," respectively. A Boogie wit da Hoodie and YG help form an unusual but effective trio on "YKTV." Yet the soaring peaks of the LP reunite Nas with heroes from the golden era. "EPMD 2," the sequel to Nas's contribution to the Judas and the Black Messiah soundtrack, invites the titular duo plus Eminem along for the ride. Although Em produced for Nas way back in '02 ("The Cross"), the two titans have never shared the same mic. Eminem, who still treats hip-hop like a sport, bats cleanup on "EPMD 2," and it speaks to Nas's confidence that he lets Eminem steal the show.
Ditto Ms. Lauryn Hill on the superb "Nobody," one of the LP's most compelling conceptual pieces. On the track, a wistful Nas dreams of escaping fame and expectation. He empathizes with Dave Chappelle's bolt to Africa, understanding the pull of living "someplace to be nobody." Then, Nas's frequent tourmate and "If I Ruled the World (Imagine That)" collaborator blesses the track with a rare and searing rap verse: "I'm savin' souls, and y'all complainin' 'bout my lateness / Now it's illegal for someone to walk in greatness," Ms. Hill blazes.
The momentum of King's Disease II's eventual first half results in some lag to the finish line, but whether it's inspired singles ("Rare"), fresh collaborations, new ideas or bejeweled one-liners ("How you expect to get love if you don't show none?"), King Nas serves up another reminder that he's no pretender to the throne. The wild ambition has just evolved into calculated wisdom. Or, as our host puts it: "Everything I know now, wish I knew back then." (Mass Appeal)